Something old, something new and something borrowed in fiery marriage of art and music

Pied Piper by Lebohang Kganye.

Pied Piper by Lebohang Kganye.

The room you enter is crushingly ordinary. As the lights are dimmed and the instruments are fired up, magic erupts. Listening to the Image, an event which forced you to listen to a visual artwork with more than just your ears, not only presented four splinteringly fine new voices; it also gave wing to a cross-disciplinary understanding of what happens at the cleavage of art and music.

As an idea, it’s not brand new: The Italian Futurists tinkered with performance in 1908 or so. As did the Feminists in America in the 1970s, to say nothing of women dadaists. Artists have been painting to poems since time immemorial and masterminding ballet costumes and opera sets. Illustration and poetry have been melded, pushing letters into image-bearing curiosities.

But the project mooted Listening to the Image, bringing together four young professionals under the mantel and support of heavy weight composers, one of this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival events, enabled an important exchange of values to flourish last Saturday afternoon.

In coercing diverse mediums into dialogue, and in allowing audience access to the work to be dictated by those who created it, something astonishing happened, bringing echoes of the voice of Henri Bergson, who experimented with time and staticity at the turn of the twentieth century, but it also felt like it was 1990, before technology thrust its overall and bland path into art making, where the ‘what if’ factor was given voice and your sensibilities were allowed to be challenged and opened.

Facilitated by well established contemporary South African composers, Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph and Peter Klatzow – this year’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival’s composer-in-residence – and curated by Mika Conradie, the piece showcased the skills of graduate student composers Matthew Dennis (Cape Town), Antoni Schonken (Stellenbosch) and Diale Peter-Daniel Mabitsela (Johannesburg) in response to the photographic work of Lebohang Kganye, currently enrolled at the University of Johannesburg.

Kganye’s work, given the celebrated nod in 2012 by the Tierney Fellowship, whilst she was studying at the Market Photo Laboratory, was not created specifically for this project. Entitled Ke Lefa Laka, the work engages with loss and displacement on several levels quite personal to the artist. In forging musical response to the works, the literal meaning of the pieces was not exploded: rather their presence was probed: some of the works are photo montages; others play with ghosting and shadows. The music created in response to this woman looking at herself in a mirror, this man holding a baby, this family on a pilgrimage of sorts to the big city, was extraordinary.

Like contemporary dance, contemporary music is not always accommodating to the outsider. You might not know what a composer means by this trill or that digital sampling or this nuance and that repetition. As a non-music person, you access the folds and splays of the language as you must, with ears and a soul: when you are presented with an image, something else becomes part of the mix and you draw on other experiences to give it voice in your head and heart and history.

Played by a quintet, comprising violin (Carmelia Onea), cello (Carel Henn), flute (Anna Marie Muller), bassoon (Paul Rodgers) and percussion (Magda de Vries), the three pieces, entitled Polyphony: 1080kHz: Visions (Dennis), Hearing the Image (Schonken) and Iconography (Mabitsela), respectively engaged with the dynamics established by the darkness in the venue, the use of the images and the presence of the musicians. Schonken arranged the players all over the room, forcing audience involvement in a ‘quintaphonic’ way which would effectively have resulted in each audience member having a different experience, depending on their position in the room. His simple musical narrative quotes eastern tradition as well as western and is mesmerising. Dennis’ work manifests a sense of humour in how the instruments converse and how elements like the ticking of a clock and the ringing of a phone are present. Mabitsela engages the notion of Johannesburg with forthrightness and a jazzy palette. Each composer clearly has an exciting future ahead of him.

Also to the exercise’s immense credit was a structural decision taken in its programme. The audience succumbed naked, as it were, to the experience, at the outset. No explanations were offered. Then, after each of the three pieces had been performed, a panel discussion, chaired by Klatzow and featuring Conradie and the three composers, was hosted, enabling audience members to ask questions and the composers to speak about their work. And then, the audience got to hear the work again: this lovely device enabled deeper engagement; giving the images their chance to shimmer in cohesion with the music leaving unforgettable impressions.

The auditorium in the Goethe Institut in Parkwood is an oblong space with a tilted ceiling, more conducive to traditional lectures than something as unusual as this; with the use of projection, choreographic co-ordination between image and sound, something extraordinary happened here.

A curious flaw involving bright lights and bright colours – a green screen and a red one, which were too bold and sudden a graphic counterpart to Kganye’s pieces, and a bright white screen or two upset the focus of the work: there didn’t seem to be a logical resonance between the repetitions of images in co-ordination with the music itself. This is all forgivable, though, with the premise or the promise that other cross-dynamics of specialist skills of this nature can happen in South Africa.

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